The British and tea enjoy a seemingly unbreakable bond. British culture rests on such bedrocks as afternoon tea, a tradition that people will gladly pay top dollar for. Many overseas visitors to the UK come to partake of wafer thin cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and feather light cake confections that please the eyes and the taste buds. The tea in the pot of course, doesn’t come from our shores, it hails from more exotic climes, and one of those is Darjeeling in India.
The oldest hill station of the Raj
Darjeeling is a rambling, but compact, Victorian town that sits at the feet of the lower Himalayas. Historically, it was ruled by Nepal and Sikkim before becoming part of India and you’ll still find many traces of these cultures today, plus a significant Tibetan influence, due to the recent arrival of refugees from Tibet. It is one of India’s most northerly destinations and its mountainous terrain, lush greenery and fresh air made it one of the most popular hill stations during the British Raj. British families created hill stations to escape the heat and humidity of the Indian plains in the summer months, and many of them remain popular with the Indian middle classes as places for second homes.
Getting there – planes and taxis
Travelling to Darjeeling can be one of the most exciting parts of the trip. Coming from the UK, your journey in India will usually start at an Indian airport, and either Delhi or Kolkata are suitable for connections to Bagdogra airport near Siliguri, which is about 2.5 hours by road from Darjeeling. Taking a taxi from Siliguri to Darjeeling is quite a popular choice and with prices at roughly £20 for the entire journey, you can see why many choose it. However, although you can take an air-conditioned taxi, expect the roads to be rather less comfortable. You will have tales to tell when you get home; Indian roads, including its modern motorways, do have a habit of throwing up surprises, such as cows in the fast lane!
Taking the toy train
But perhaps the most memorable way to arrive in Darjeeling is by train. You’ll start at New Jalpaiguri (NJP), which connects with India’s major cities. Trains from Delhi take about 27 hours and the Kolkata night train takes 12 hours. Once you get to NJP the real train journey treat begins; on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), also known as the ‘Toy Train’. It is the first Indian hill passenger railway, and is considered an outstanding example of a narrow gauge railway, which is why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train journey takes just over six hours to cover 80kms, so as you may realise it doesn’t travel very fast; but it does give you plenty of time to admire the scenery and acclimatise to the air at Darjeeling’s 6,710 feet, or 2067 metres, above sea level.
One of Darjeeling’s most spectacular sights is the snow-clad peak of Kangchenjunga in the Himalayan range. This is the third highest mountain in the world, and its surrounding nature reserves are the native habitat of globally important species of flora and fauna including the endangered snow leopard, the red panda and the white-bellied musk deer. To get a good view of the peak, try the view from Tiger Hill in Darjeeling at dawn, or the Darjeeling War Memorial. Climbing enthusiasts may like to know that The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is based in Darjeeling: it was founded by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who famously accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on his 1953 climb that conquered Mt. Everest for the first time.
Darjeeling is an excellent holiday destination for anyone fond of walking or biking. It’s also become quite a fashionable spa retreat. But, you simply can’t visit Darjeeling without taking its famous tea. How Darjeeling got its tea is a roguish story of Dr Campbell, a British surgeon who stole some Camellia Sinensis tea seeds from China and planted them in Darjeeling in 1840. It turned out to be perfect for tea growing and the ‘tea gardens’ of the town became the backbone of British tea drinking. Authentic Darjeeling tea comes in black, white and oolong varieties and you can buy the real thing at numerous tea emporiums in the town. It isn’t cheap: in 2014 Darjeeling Makaibari estate tea sold at £1,234 per kilo, making it the most expensive tea in India. There are tours of the area’s numerous tea estates and you can learn how it gets from there to your cup. Darjeeling should prove perfect to provide you with a good holiday brew!